Book Review: The Pillars of the Earth


The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

I have finally gotten around to read the first of two books in the Kingsbridge series by Ken Follet; they were super popular and got great reviews at one stage. The two books themselves are quite extensive and from first glance they look like they have the potential for that “epic story” that many fantasy writers seem to manage. I’m still reading the second book, but they both focus on a town called Kingsbridge, in England, the site of a cathedral of some repute and revolving around the people who live there – from monks to merchants and from gentry to peasantry. Since I’m still busy reading the second book, this review only concerns the first book The Pillars of the Earth.

The story-line follows the building of the Kingsbridge cathedral, but first the book starts out in a very intriguing way – the hanging of a foreigner, the curse of a wronged woman and three powerful men fearful of what they had done. The significance of this opening impacts the story both on a superficial level (in that the woman becomes an important character) and on a layered level (in that secrets related to these events are revealed later on). However, the bulk of the story is a bit more down-to-earth: young romance, cruel nobility and sly clergy. In fact, the plot relied so heavily on these pop-culture tropes that I felt like I could guess at most new characters’ personalities even before they were introduced, just by their class description – the rich girl with curly brown hair is, of course, the sweetheart; the tall, handsome landowner is, wait for it, cruel and chauvinistic; and the poor, shy boy with red hair is, yep, an unappreciated genius. What’s more, the characters never changed, there was no development – they were born into the book a certain way and stayed that way for decades of plot. Nobody can boast that they are the same person, believe the same things or even talk the same all through their lives… but okay, maybe that’s difficult to write into a book without seeming too inconsistent… the characters just felt flat and unimaginative.

Honestly the story-line itself had the same feeling. Sure, all characters, good and bad, got a good dose of fortune and misfortune throughout, but the way it was administered was extremely predictable. Halfway into the book the recipe is terribly, consistently clear – the “good guys” win something, then lose something, the “bad guys” lose, then gain. It was like a rhyme you could recite “one for me, one for you, one for me…” and on and on, really, all the way to the end. Well, I finished the book not quite satisfied, but that’s life.

Then why am I reading the second book (World Without End), you may ask? The blurb promised more outside influence – plague, famine, war, prosperity. I’m almost halfway and there seems to be much more of a variety of characters, motivations and journeys. I’m hopeful. 🙂 Luckily you don’t need to read the first book in order to “get” the second. It plays out in the same town, around the same cathedral, but enough years have passed that the initial characters have very little influence on the plot and the context is completely new. Well, I wouldn’t say the first book was necessarily bad, but it was painfully average. Let’s see how the second one turns out 😉

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Dark Tourism

When you think about “travel” there is a specific image that pops into your head. Maybe a memory of the last trip you took; perhaps the one you’re planning now, even if it’s still just a dream. For me somehow it’s sunshine and lots of walking. Something that probably doesn’t crop up is the tragic side of history: the parts of exploration that expose the traveler to stories of individual heartache or mass grief. From the rolling head of unlucky monarchs to the ghostly echoes of a thousand footsteps over an ancient battlefield – these places attract attention as well as tourists just as surely as the romance of Paris or the symbol of hope of New York’s Statue of Liberty.

In fact, in the same city of Lady Liberty you’ll scratch the surface of what “Dark Tourism” is. Those who take a silent moment at Ground Zero are not only those who lost a loved one there, people from all over the world go there to commemorate and commiserate. For the same reason Auschwitz and Tienanmen Square are popular; in visiting and keeping these places and events in our collective memory, we may ward off the potential of it ever happening again. “We do not forget, so it doesn’t happen again” – as in the words of the group “No More Torture” (Tortura Nunca Mais) who protested during the fall of the Brazilian dictatorship. We are stewarding our human narrative and guarding our actions and hopefully the actions of our leaders from going so far astray again.


Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China, 1988 Image by Derzsi Elekes Andor licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

However, that’s only the tip of the iceberg of what dark tourism means. Digging deeper, we find the popularity of haunted houses and abandoned theme parks with all of their accompanying stories of horror (whether real or fabricated). Ok… chalk these up to thrills and adrenaline; file these in the same category as roller coasters and bungee jumping. People have an illogical love of the extreme and inexplicable, because (ironically) it makes us feel alive. Even I peek into the dark windows of an empty, abandoned hospital on my way back from work every day.

Let’s examine this closer under the magnifying glass one more time and look at these places that truly carry the word “dark”. There are hundreds of Youtube videos about the “creepiest” places to visit as well as articles telling the sordid, bloody histories of anomalies of nature – serial killers. Far from leaving people only with the willies or a cold chill up the nape of your neck, there are hordes of travelers who pursue these places where the worst things have happened. Tourists enjoy Japan’s Aokigahara forest not only for it’s beautiful, verdant forestiness… this is where hundreds of people come each year to commit suicide in privacy and solitude (in 2003, official stats put the number at 105, according to the Aokigahara Forest website). Nothing altruistic is served by going to these places, in fact the Japanese have stopped releasing official numbers for how many people die in the forest for fear of encouraging others (according to the VICE special from 2012). I am not saying it’s not good visiting these places, or that people shouldn’t! If I had the chance, I would be there too… maybe not taking smiling selfies, but to check out a place with such a reputation? Sure. Other similar sites include the Czech Republic’s Sedlec Ossuary which is a World Heritage Site, and for what? The chapel is built out of 40 000 – 70 000 people’s skeletons and receives about 200 000 visitors annually. Then there’s the pre-Colombian city of Chichen Itza with its bloody history, built by the Mayans and where human sacrifice took place regularly at the Sacred Cenote, together with offerings of gold, just like in Disney’s Road to El Dorado (Chichen Itza receives 1.2 million visitors a year).

Traveling is a joy in and of itself and needs no justification, but I would think that people would choose to visit sunny beaches and high, green mountains over musty catacombs and dry, chalky chapels, but too each his own. It is interesting for me to see what other people find fascinating and it’s striking how people are riveted to the weird, the macabre and what’s on the periphery of disturbing sometimes.